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India – Will empowering gram sabhas derail development?

People want to be heard. By imposing development on them by the power of the gun we are only creating conflict


Photo: Hindustan Times

Photo: Hindustan Times

There is unease in the corporate sector over a recent decision by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). After a seven-year struggle, a village in Himachal Pradesh has won the right to decide whether or not a hydel power project should be set up in its area.

The empowerment came when rights of the villagers under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) were recognized following a judgment by the NGT on 4 May.

This column has highlighted the plight of farmers in Himachal Pradesh and the submergence of their pine nut trees due to construction of the hydel project . The NGT has directed the government to ensure that prior to forest clearance to the Kashang Integrated Hydroelectric Project, the proposal is placed before a gram sabha of villages in Kinnaur district.

This is not the first time that courts have empowered the gram sabha to take decisions. In a landmark judgment in 2013, the Supreme Court directed that the smallest units of local governance use their powers and take a decision on whether the Vedanta Group’s $1.7 billion bauxite mining project in Odisha’s Niyamgiri Hills should go forward. The verdict was seen not just as a victory for the Dongria Kondh tribal group that had fought a long and hard battle against the project, but as a validation of the gram sabha’s powers under the FRA.

In the latest case, the hydel project would have submerged forests and deprived local farmers of their livelihood. The worry now, as a business insider remarked, is that “this is going to derail development now that we have to seek permissions from the gram sabha as well”.

Corporate houses are seeing this verdict as contrary to the current emphasis of the government on the ‘ease of doing business’ and ending traces of the licence raj.

Environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta, who fought the farmers’ case in court, counters this belief of corporate entities. “We have to move away from our idea of the gram sabha as illiterate people sitting under a banyan tree smoking hookah or plotting to derail development. People are aware of their needs and want development that empowers them, not alienate them from their land or forests,” he says.

In fact, around the world the “free and prior informed consent” (FPIC)of communities is being seen as a necessary tool for businesses. Even the World Bank has made it mandatory before implementing a project. That’s why corporate entities in India should see this verdict by the NGT and the precedent it sets as good for business.

In a report entitled ‘Development Without Conflict’ by the World Resources Institute (May 2007), the authors make a business case “for sponsors of large-scale, high-impact projects to treat the consent of the host community as a requirement of project development”.

Through a series of real-world examples, the report illustrates some of the ways in which the risks of community opposition can manifest themselves. It also provides a positive case study that demonstrates how early attention to FPIC issues can help avoid significant costs during implementation. It argues that while community FPIC first emerged as an international norm applicable to indigenous peoples, it has come to be widely seen as critical to the fair treatment of all communities.

So that’s all that the tribunal has done. It has applied the norm of FPIC, which should anyway be built into large projects. In addition to a business case, the principle of FPIC could have also saved precious lives and minimized conflict.

Take the recent case in Arunachal Pradesh on 2 May, when two activists lost their lives while protesting against the construction of the proposed Nyamjang Chhu hydroelectric project. The entire town of Tawang had to be shut down and the army carried out a flag march to restore normalcy. All because the local people felt their voice was not being heard.

People want to be heard. By imposing development on them by the power of the gun we are only creating conflict. Rather than feeling nervous, corporate houses and the government should embrace this decision of the NGT. With the consent of the gram sabha, less time will be wasted on litigation and more focus will be on giving development a local meaning. Now that’s how ‘Make in India’ can become truly relevant for everyone.

The author is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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